Monday, August 2, 2021

Re-blogged: COVID Fear (and Thoughts on Death) by Nathan Williams

This article is worth a read and thoughtful consideration. --JME

We have been hearing media outlets and our government tell us for a year and a half now that COVID is super-extra-duper dangerous, that it’s a killer, and that we risk everyone else’s lives if we walk around without something covering our faces. It’s hard not to believe that now, even though the risk level has plummeted extremely low.

Even in the worst periods of the pandemic I tried not to listen to fear-mongering but look at the raw data. It didn’t look so bad even then. If I were older, I’d probably have been more concerned, quicker to grab a vaccine. But at my age I have not been greatly concerned. I am certainly not fearful for my kids, who are all under 18 years old. If they get it, it probably won’t hurt them badly and it almost certainly won’t kill them. It will be like a mild flu for them, most likely.

But guess what? We will all die of something at some point. And I mean that in the most comforting and encouraging way possible. I mean, you could go get the vaccine and immediately walk out in front of a semi. You could be diagnosed with some form of cancer. You could have a heart attack. You will die of something at some point. All those who are spreading COVID fear are attempting to sell us on the lie that we can somehow cheat death if we just do the right things. But death is a door each of us will walk through, an appointment each of us will keep. I suppose if you are not ready to die, this is probably not so encouraging, but to someone who loves the Lord Jesus Christ and has faith in His promise of eternal life, death is just the beginning of eternity with God.

Read the article HERE

Saturday, July 17, 2021

Psalm 80: Restore Us, O God!

This is a sermon manuscript written for Reformation OPC (AZ) on the Lord's Day, July 18, 2021.

Introduction

Western civilization, in general, and American society, in particular, is in a period of moral and spiritual decline. The seeds of secularism and Darwinism which were sown for generations are now producing a harvest of confusion, contention, and hate. We have lost our former confidence in the goodwill and sincerity of our opponents. Many look at their neighbors with envy, anger, and malice. History is being rewritten, words are being redefined, and policies are being enacted which advance an ideological agenda that is anti-God, anti-Christ, anti-freedom, anti-human flourishing.


The state of our society is both influencing and reflected in the visible Church as well. We see the fruit of generations of theological liberalism and carnal religion, and the harvest is bitter and unbiblical. Many churches are empty in every sense of the term. There is no gospel, no inerrant and infallible Scripture, no reverence, no life, and soon--like the cathedrals in Europe--there will be no worshippers in the pews. Other churches are massive, full of people and energy and programs, but devoid of truth, beauty, and goodness. Their ministries are modeled on successful businesses, and that is what they are. Pastors are chosen not for their godliness or theological competence but for their organizational skills and their ability to give a speech prepared and plagiarized by a team of writers. Their worship services are a strange combination of rock concert with a TED talk in between musical sets. Attenders are excited, but not edified. They are entertained, not enlightened.


I think it is fair to say that even among more conservative, biblical, evangelical, and even Reformed churches, we are traveling a hard road, and it looks like the next several miles are going to be even rougher. The Southern Baptist Convention recently elected a president who is soft on critical theory, a friend to the social justice movement, and who insists he is a complementarian, which is why when his wife preached at their church, she did so under his authority.


The next week the PCA’s General Assembly made some good decisions in attempting to oppose the rising tide of critical race and gender theory within their denomination, but those decisions were only the start of the battle, not the end of it. The Assembly was punctuated by multiple elders standing up to identify as same-sex attracted Christians--a category which certainly exists but which should be a reason for shame and renewed repentance rather than pride in adopting such temptations as a part of personhood. In one sermon at the PCA’s GA we learned that the prophet Jonah’s primary sin was ethnocentrism and nationalism. Progressives must be delighted that with the development of Critical Theory we can finally properly interpret Bible texts we never could have understood even an hundred years ago.


I thank God to have been able to serve at our own denomination’s General Assembly during the last two weeks, and I am thankful that we are not yet struggling with the kind of issues already in the open in the SBC and PCA. But I would be untruthful if I said I was encouraged. Even if our challenges in the OPC are far less severe than those in other communions, we are naive if we imagine we do not have serious challenges that need to be addressed right now.


After I returned home from General Assembly, our family read Psalm 80 together, and I realized this was the text I needed to preach on this Sunday rather than what I had planned. This is a prayer for restoration and revival. Not the superficial sort of so-called revival that is the result of emotional manipulation rather than true Spirit-wrought conviction. No, Psalm 80 is a plea for the Lord to come and save his people, turning them back to himself by means of the saving work of the Son of his right hand. It is a prayer for restoration, that God would fulfill the promise of his benediction to make his face to shine upon [us] and be gracious. Psalm 80 is the counterpart to Psalm 23. The Lord is my Shepherd, and here we pray for the Shepherd to correct his wayward flock. It is an appropriate prayer, for our nation, for the Church as a whole, for our denomination, and for other churches. It may be an appropriate prayer for where you are right now. When do we not need to ask God to come and save us? We always need his restoring and enlivening grace.


Background and Overview of the Psalm

Psalms 79 and 80 are very similar in setting and substance. Psalm 79 describes Jerusalem in ruins, and Psalm 80 describes the judgment of the northern kingdom, sometimes referred to by the prophets as Joseph since Ephraim and Manasseh (Joseph’s sons) were the two largest tribes in that land. Asaph was the author of both psalms, so we expect they were written in the same historical period. There have been various views on the specific circumstances of their writing. Calvin refers this psalm to the destruction of Israel by Assyria in 722 BC, and this seems most likely. Judah was also under severe threat at that time which might explain the correlation with Psalm 79. But we cannot know for certain, and it is not necessary to know in order to rightly interpret and apply it.

“Some think it was penned upon occasion of the desolation and captivity of the ten tribes, as the foregoing psalm of the two. But many were the distresses of the Israel of God, many perhaps which are not recorded in the sacred history some whereof might give occasion for the drawing up of this psalm, which is proper to be sung in the day of Jacob's trouble, and if, in singing it, we express a true love to the church and a hearty concern for its interest, with a firm confidence in God's power to help it out of its greatest distresses, we make melody with our hearts to the Lord.” --Matthew Henry

Psalm 80 was not included in the Church’s prayer book so that all generations could lament the destruction and deportation of the northern kingdom. It was included so that we could, along with the faithful in Asaph’s day and in every generation since, lament God’s righteous judgment of his Church, to remember that just as he judged his people then, so he will continue to discipline and chasten his people today. Discipline is unpleasant; it is painful and hard. But it is for our good, and God gives us prayers like Psalm 80 to know how we ought to sing when the Church is in distress, even if that distress is caused by our own sinfulness, compromise, and worldliness.


Yahweh is the Shepherd of His People (1-2)

The psalm begins with a prayer that God, who is the Shepherd of his people, would shine forth. Specifically, it is Yahweh who dwells between the cherubim. Not Yahweh as represented by Jeroboam’s golden calves. Not Baal or the multitude of other gods whom Israel worshipped prior to her judgment and exile. It is the Shepherd of Israel who leads Joseph like a flock. The people of Israel are like sheep, not lions, not bulls, not people of sound and independent minds. They are sheep: dumb, weak, and defenseless, a flock of animals meant to be led and which only survive under the care of a strong and faithful shepherd. The psalm recalls the consecration of both the Tabernacle and Temple when the radiance of God’s glory shone so brightly the priests could not even enter the Holy Place. Now the Church cries out in sung prayer: O Shepherd of Israel… shine forth! We long to see that glory once again. We desire the radiance of God’s holiness to so fill and illuminate the sacred space that God’s priestly people cannot disregard or stand before it. We want the Lord to manifest his presence and power in such a way that the whole Church stands in awe.


The meaning of the reference to Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh in v.2 is uncertain. Augustine thought the three should be interpreted in terms of the meaning of their names: Ephraim being doubly fruitful, Benjamin being son of the right hand/strength, Manasseh being forgetting as in Joseph forgetting his former life and sorrow. Matthew Henry suggests these are named because in the wilderness these three tribes would march behind the tabernacle when Israel moved camp (Num. 2:17-24), thus creating a picture of God’s people assembling behind God’s sanctuary to march with the God whom they worship leading the way.


The psalm implores God to stir up his strength and come to save his people. We know we are only overrun by enemies if the Lord ordains and allows it, and he will only do so with a good purpose, for good reason. We will see that reason more clearly later in the psalm, but we know from Israel’s history why he would allow them to fall into distress. Israel had become worldly and corrupt. Their worship was idolatrous. Their behavior and values were taught by the Canaanites and not by the Law of God. Israel’s only hope was that God, in his power and majesty, would arise to save his people from their foes.


In order for that to happen, Israel needed to learn again that Yahweh is the Shepherd of his people. He leads the Church like a flock, and she must follow. He dwells between the cherubim, not in a golden calf or a shrine on the high places, not in the academy or seminary where educated men presume to teach doubt concerning God’s Word, not in the secular sphere where experts preach that men are verbal monkeys, that racism can be diagnosed based on skin tone, and that genitalia are irrelevant in identifying sex and gender. You have to know who God is, where he is to be found, and where we ought to be in relation to him. He is the God of strength, glory, and authority. He dwells in the Most Holy Place, and like Ephraim, Benjamin, and Manasseh our proper place is behind him, following him, not running away from him, not working against him, and certainly not contradicting him.


We are to be in a posture of submission and worship. God made you sheep, not lemmings. Sheep have a shepherd, and that keeps them from running over a cliff. Lemmings have no master. They are caught up in the craziness of the crowd. In less than sixty years our country has moved from the idea that men are to be judged by the content of their character and not the color of their skin to corporations now paying tens of thousands of dollars to have experts lecture their white employees on implicit bias and bigotry assessed not on the basis of their behavior but based solely on the fact that they are white. Lemmings. Last week the American Booksellers Association issued an apology for sending samples to independent bookstores advertising Abigail Shrier’s Irreversible Damage calling their distribution of the book “a serious, violent incident that goes against ABA’s ends policies, values, and everything we believe and support. It is inexcusable.” Lemmings. God did not make you a lemming. He made you a sheep. Sheep need to be led, but not by other sheep, and certainly not by the furry little idiots making a beeline for the precipice. You need a Shepherd, and you need to know where he is to be found and where you ought to be in relation to him. 


The Prayer for Restoration (3, 7, 19)

Psalm 80, like all the psalms, are prayers to be sung. The ancient Church (and many sectors of the Church today) chanted psalms and hymns before the development of modern harmonies. In vv.3, 7, and 19 there is a refrain which repeats the key petition of the prayer: Restore us… cause Your face to shine, and we shall be saved! The only thing that changes in these lines is the Name of God: O God (3), O God of hosts (7), O Yahweh God of hosts (19). There is amplification of the divine Name as the psalm progresses. He is God, the God of armies, Yahweh the God of armies! This is the One to whom we look for help and salvation.


The refrain prays for restoration through God turning his face toward his people. In order to understand this, we have to know something about how the Bible speaks of God’s face. The Lord looks his people in the face when he enters into relationship with them. The LORD talked with you face to face on the mountain from the midst of the fire (Deut. 5:4). He spoke to Moses face to face (Ex. 33:11; Num. 12:8). Israel had a face to face relationship with Yahweh (Num. 14:14). Facing his people means looking with love and favor. If he hides his face, his people will fall into trouble.

Ps. 13:1-2: How long, O LORD? Will You forget me forever? How long will You hide Your face from me? How long shall I take counsel in my soul, Having sorrow in my heart daily? How long will my enemy be exalted over me? 

Ps. 30:6-7: Now in my prosperity I said, “I shall never be moved.”

LORD, by Your favor You have made my mountain stand strong;
You hid Your face, and I was troubled.

On the other hand, if he sets his face against someone, they will come under terrible judgment.

Ps. 34:15-16: The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, And His ears are open to their cry.

The face of the Lord is against those who do evil, To cut off the remembrance of them from the earth. 

Jer. 21:10: “For I have set My face against this city for adversity and not for good,” says the LORD. “It shall be given into the hand of the king of Babylon, and he shall burn it with fire.” (cf. Jer. 44:11-12)

But the prayer of Psalm 80 leans upon God’s covenant mercies and the promise he will not utterly reject or abhor his suffering servant, whether Christ or the Body of Christ.

Ps. 22:23-24: You who fear the LORD, praise Him! All you descendants of Jacob, glorify Him, And fear Him, all you offspring of Israel! For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from Him; But when He cried to Him, He heard.

God calls us to seek his face, i.e. to seek his presence and favor by living in covenant with integrity and sincerity. We are to know that we live in the presence of God, all our lives spent Coram Deo.

Ps. 27:8-9: When You said, “Seek My face,” My heart said to You, “Your face, LORD, I will seek.” Do not hide Your face from me; Do not turn Your servant away in anger; You have been my help; Do not leave me nor forsake me, O God of my salvation.

The Shepherd of Israel restores our soul (Ps. 23:3), and Psalm 80 is asking him to do so. We need to be healed, our sins forgiven, our hearts mended, our minds enlightened, our hands and feet trained for righteousness after having learned the habits of unholiness and disobedience. We are asking God to turn his face towards us because we know that we are in distress because he has turned his face away. Lord, look at us! We need You. We want You to be in our lives. We want to live in Your presence. This is why the psalmist often calls the Lord to search him and test him. We want God to be in our business. We don’t want to hide anything from him. Shine the light of truth into our hearts and lives. Expose what we have not seen in ourselves, and bring us to conviction and contrition. The prayer of restoration is a prayer for joy to return, the joy of the Lord that is our strength, the joy of salvation that is God’s gift to his people. We have been ruined and rotted away by our sin, but in this prayer we sing that the God of might and glory would restore us again.


Why Would God Be Angry with His People’s Prayers? (4-6)

We expect God to be angry with our sins and with our enemies, but the psalmist describes the Lord as angry against the prayer of [his] people. Because of Israel’s disobedience, the Lord would no longer hear their prayers. Prayer is not a human right, it is a covenant privilege. God is not obligated to listen to you or me or anyone else. The only thing that obligates him is his own promise. He promises to hear the prayers of his saints, but if we refuse to listen to him, he will no longer hear our prayers and bless us.

Ps. 66:18-19: If I regard iniquity in my heart, The LORD will not hear. But certainly God has heard me; He has attended to the voice of my prayer. 

Pr. 28:19: One who turns away his ear from hearing the law, Even his prayer is an abomination. 

Is. 59:1-2: Behold, the LORD’s hand is not shortened, That it cannot save; Nor His ear heavy, That it cannot hear. But your iniquities have separated you from your God; And your sins have hidden His face from you, So that He will not hear.

It’s not as though God cannot hear. Hearing refers to listening, accepting, and answering. This is what God says he will not do so long as we remain in our sins.


Unrepentance forfeits any right to prayer. Unrepentant people cannot pray. They are proud, without remorse, and God will not hear them, even if they offer prayer (Lk. 18:9ff). God will not grant our prayers when we ask with false motives, for our own glory instead of for his, for selfish gain rather than in surrender to his will (Jas. 4:3). He will not listen when we pray hypocritically, making a show of religion devoid of sincerity, when we pray so that others will commend us rather than in a simple desire to communicate praise, thanks, and petition to God (Mt. 6:5). He will not answer prayers when we offer them to a false god or to Yahweh in an idolatrous way. This is what we see in Israel’s history, and is it not reflected in the Church today? How many cry out to Mary and the saints for blessing when Jesus shed his blood so that they might plead for grace not through other intercessors in glory but from the glorified Son of God alone!


The Vine of God, Planted and Trampled (8-13)

The psalmist goes on to recite the history of God’s goodness to his people. He brought them out of bondage in Egypt, gave them the promised land, and planted them there to flourish and grow. The glory of God was seen in the prosperity and expansion of his people. Their success was his work and not their own. But now the people were in great distress. Israel’s walls were broken down, she was plundered by foreigners, boars uprooted her from the ground, and wild animals devoured what God had given to her. And why? Because of sins which are implied throughout the psalm but only become explicit in v.18. Psalm 80 is not a prayer of confession, per se, but is a plea for restoration in the aftermath of judgment which God had sent upon his people.


Like OT Israel, the Church is a redeemed people, planted in a wilderness, protected from foes and dangers all around her, and destined to grow and prosper until the land is full of glory.

“The church is a choice and noble vine; we have reason to acknowledge the goodness of God that he has planted such a vine in the wilderness of this world, and preserved it to this day.” --Matthew Henry

But what will be the case if the Church today becomes like the world, just as Israel did in the OT? The Lord will not destroy the Church. Jesus promised the gates of Hell will not prevail against the Church he purchased with his blood (Mt. 16:18). But this promise is to the catholic Church, not to every local instantiation of that Body. The Lord threatened to remove Ephesus’s lampstand unless they repented. He threatened violent judgment of a false teacher in the congregation at Thyatira. He warned the saints in Sardis that their group was mostly dead and what remained was ready to die. He was so disgusted by the church in Laodicea that he said he would spit them out.


The Church must remember who she is and where she was and that where we stand now is maintained only by grace. We were dead in our sins and trespasses when God made us alive, and he raised us up with Christ to sit in places of glory. But if we disregard his grace and refuse to heed the voice of our Savior, we too will find our hedges broken down and our inheritance plundered.


The Hope of Revival (14-18)

Israel had been overtaken by his enemies, but she would not be overcome. There was still hope, not for Israel as a political entity, but for the Israel of God in the outworking of God’s plan of grace. The vine which God had planted had been cut down and burned, but the Lord could revive it. He is the God of life, the God of resurrection, and he could bring new life to Israel out of ashes.


The Scriptures often use the analogy of a vineyard and vine to describe God’s people. The image is found in Isaiah 5, and Jesus uses the same figure for illustration in John 15. The vineyard is an organic reality, not merely an institutional one. It emphasizes the living nature of the people of God, that we are planted and nurtured by the vinedresser, and that we are intended to bear fruit for the glory of God. But living things can also be malnourished, choked by weeds, poisoned, barren. The vineyard will not bear good grapes on its own. It must be cultivated by one with wisdom for growing plants, and it must respond to the care and nurture it is given. It might seem impossible for a vineyard that has been burned to ever grow again, but if the Lord can raise a multitude to life in a valley of dry bones, then he can bring life to the vineyard that had been burned and cut down.


The hope was in the son of man at God’s right hand. Most of us probably assume this must be Christ, but interestingly, Calvin identifies this with the Church. But these are not two different interpretations, but two facets of the correct interpretation. The Church is the son of God which stands at his right hand. That is how Scripture speaks of us. But we are only that because the Only Begotten Son of God became also the Son of Man in order to be our Redeemer. This is another example of the principle of totus Christus. The psalm is preeminently about Christ and the hope of restoration we have in him. But everything that is true of him as the glorified Son of Man is also true, by grace, of those whom he has redeemed, the Church, the glorious son of God. We do not choose between Jesus and the Church. Because Jesus is the Son of Man, we are the sons of God.


The issue that has been implicit throughout the psalm comes to the forefront in v.18. Then we will not turn back from You; Revive us, and we will call upon Your Name. There is the issue. Israel is in distress because she turned away from God. The prayer for restoration is a prayer for repentance and revival. It is not merely, “Lord, take away our troubles and bless us again.” It is, “Lord, renew our hearts, revive our faith, restore our souls, that we might worship You again.”


Pastoral Application: Revival, Repentance, Reformation, and Restoration

At the risk of causing offense by being too specific, what hope is there for Southern Baptist churches, or the PCA, or the OPC, or ROPC, or any of us and our households? What hope is there for America when it is considered violence merely to advertise a professional book which says it is harmful to give hormone therapy and cut off sex organs in children? It might be easy to despair. There are ordained ministers in conservative, Reformed denominations that identify as gay (but celibate) Christians. Should we expect God to bless us when we do such things? If we do, then we are dangerously naive or willfully and recklessly stupid.


Matthew Henry has, as so often, a very helpful and pastoral reflection on this psalm.

“They are conscious to themselves that they have gone astray from God and their duty, and have turned aside into sinful ways, and that it was this that provoked God to hide his face from them and to give them up into the hand of their enemies; and therefore they desire to begin their work at the right end: "Lord, turn us to thee in a way of repentance and reformation, and then, no doubt, thou wilt return to us in a way of mercy and deliverance." Observe, 1. No salvation but from God's favour: "Cause thy face to shine, let us have thy love and the light of thy countenance, and then we shall be saved." 2. No obtaining favour with God unless we be converted to him. We must turn again to God from the world and the flesh, and then he will cause his face to shine upon us. 3. No conversion to God but by his own grace; we must frame our doings to turn to him (Hos. v. 4) and then pray earnestly for his grace, Turn thou me, and I shall be turned, pleading that gracious promise (Prov. i. 23), Burn you at my reproof; behold, I will pour out my Spirit unto you. The prayer here is for a national conversion; in this method we must pray for national mercies, that what is amiss may be amended, and then our grievances would be soon redressed. National holiness would secure national happiness.” --Matthew Henry

During the PCA’s GA I heard an elder call the denomination to repent (not mourn, not pray about, but repent of) the growing violence against Asian Americans. Was this because the PCA has endorsed or practiced or protected those who commit acts of violence against Asian Americans? No. Might I suggest instead that the PCA repent of the fact they are allowing elders to serve who think such a call to repentance is biblical and appropriate?


Listen again Matthew Henry: “They are conscious to themselves that they have gone astray from God and their duty, and have turned aside into sinful ways, and that it was this that provoked God to hide his face from them and to give them up into the hand of their enemies; and therefore they desire to begin their work at the right end.” Are we conscious that we have gone astray? Do we recognize the need to pray for revival, repentance, reformation, and restoration? Do we see the gravity of our situation, and are we earnest in crying out to God? Or are we largely indifferent?


I realize there are some who are talking as if the sky is falling. That is not my intention. We should not be captive to fear, anxiety, anger, or resentment. We should have an optimistic view of what God is doing and will do in this world and a cheerful militancy with regard to the downgrade in our culture and churches. Clickbait articles and videos that are little more than rage porn are not helping us. The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God (Jas. 1:20). But if you can sing Psalm 80 without thinking about our present world and the state of the Church, then you aren’t paying attention.


We need revival, not the kind with altar calls, invitation songs, and sawdust trails, but the kind that comes when the Spirit of God falls upon a persecutor and makes him an apostle. We need to sing Revive Thy Work, O Lord and Arise, O God, and Shine and A Mighty Fortress is Our God and Psalm 80 with penitent faith, sincere hearts, and loud voices. This is the need of the hour, a penitent Church, a praying Church, and an expectant Church that looks for the salvation of Israel. --JME

Saturday, July 3, 2021

Corporate Worship Meditation_July 4, 2021

Tomorrow is the Lord’s Day. It is also Independence Day for the United States of America. This is an interesting coincidence of dates on the calendar, a holy day appointed for the divine service and a day of national celebration and remembrance. For some churches this will mean a coordinated celebration, a worship service with patriotic songs and symbols of national pride. For other churches this will be taken as an opportunity to denounce, decry, and despise the nation in which we live. In my judgment, neither of these are appropriate in the Lord’s service of worship. Tomorrow we plan to do what we do every Lord’s Day: pray, sing, confess, hear, and receive God’s blessing in the means of grace. We will pray for our nation just as we do every week from the pulpit. We will thank God for the freedoms we enjoy, because the Lord is the source of our liberty. We will confess the sins of our nation and pray for repentance and revival, without any political grandstanding. We will do this not because we do not love our nation or desire to celebrate her independence under the blessing of God, but because we recognize the greater gift of liberty from sin and condemnation which we have received in Christ Jesus our Lord.


Independence Day is a great holiday and ought to be a time of holy remembrance and celebration. It is not wrong to say that. It is not wrong to thank God for the blessings we enjoy as a nation. To say we are thankful for America does not mean we deny the reality of our historic and present sins. Many woke evangelicals (and more than a few politically progressive Reformed leaders) are acting as if Christian nationalism and white supremacy are the greatest threats to the visible Church today, but our decision not to have the deacons sing I’m Proud to Be an American before the sermon does not mean we agree with that (rather ridiculous and socially convenient) assessment. It simply means we recognize there is a time and a place for all things, and the divine service on the Lord’s Day is not the time or place for national celebration. We won’t be singing Happy Birthday in the worship service to any of our members whose anniversary of delivery from the womb happens to fall on the Lord’s Day either. But that does not mean we should not give thanks to God for national independence (or the day of our birth). These days are holy too, not by the Spirit’s appointment but insofar as the believer celebrates them to the glory of God (1Cor. 10:31).


Our prayer list this week includes both the collect for the Fifth Sunday after Trinity and a collect for American churches on Independence Day. I hope this form of prayer will be helpful to you as you acknowledge God’s gift of liberty for our great nation and pray for his continued blessing upon us.

O ETERNAL God, through whose mighty power our fathers won their liberties of old; Grant, we beseech thee, that we and all the people of this land may have grace to maintain these liberties in righteousness and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


--JME

Wednesday, June 30, 2021

2021 Reading: Q2 Review

I posted a review of my reading at the end of the first quarter in 2021, and now I am doing the same for my reading in the second quarter of the year. That first review summarized my 2021 reading plan, so I will not repeat a summary here. The total number of volumes read dropped a little in the second quarter, which may be explained by several factors, including doing more partial reading of multiple books that have not (yet) been finished and entered into the log. I am also spending more time on language study which reduces the amount of available time for reading physical books or listening to audiobooks in English.


In the second quarter of 2021 I finished twenty-one books (down from twenty-five in the first quarter). These included nine works of theology, including a couple of R. C. Sproul classics I re-read; three books that I categorize as self-development, including a book on habits, another on leadership, and a collection of essays on the study of the martial arts; and nine novels. I am always reading at least one novel, and I highly recommend a steady diet of good novels and classic literature, especially for those who dismiss fiction in preference for non-fiction. One of the novels was Charles Portis’s True Grit which I read aloud to my sons and which we thoroughly enjoyed. A couple of others were modern classics I regularly re-read: Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card (about which I plan to write in a separate post) and The Fellowship of the Ring by J. R. R. Tolkien. There were also a couple of P. G. Wodehouse novels, G. K. Chesterton’s first novel which I had never read, two mid-twentieth century classics I had never read, and a more recent novel sent by my friend for my birthday.


At the midpoint of the year, I am behind in a few categories of planned reading and significantly ahead in others. I am satisfied with the overall balance thus far, even if the second quarter was rather unbalanced. I am fairly confident I will hit my targets in most of the categories by the end of the year. I enjoyed my reading during the last three months, though not as much overall as in the first quarter. Here are three highlights I would recommend.


First, Mark Horne’s Solomon Says: Directives for Young Men is a must-read for men, and I will be urging every member of our Session and every man in our congregation to read it. While I have a few quibbles with the book, they are minor and in no way detract from my appreciation for and eagerness to recommend and use this little volume in discipling men. Do not let the subtitle fool you. Middle-aged and older men will likewise benefit from reading and applying the exposition of biblical wisdom in this concise but very useful primer.


Second, Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card is one of two science fiction novels I think every young man should read. Parents should be aware there is some language and disturbing content in the book, but young men in their early to mid-teens should be capable of handling it. There is a good reason this novel is required reading for Marine Corps officers. It is a brilliant work, highly philosophical as is all good sci-fi.


Third, P. G. Wodehouse slays me. If you do not enjoy British humor, you may not be as entertained by Wodehouse as I am. Listening to a Wodehouse audiobook while driving might be considered a reckless act as I may one day die laughing behind the wheel while Driving with Amusement. Visitors to my house who have never read Wodehouse are often subjected to a read-aloud of one of his short stories, My Battle with Drink. Wodehouse was a prolific writer, and not all of his stories and novels are equally hilarious. But if you have not laughed loudly recently while reading an entertaining story, I recommend Mr. Wodehouse for your enjoyment. --JME

Friday, May 28, 2021

An Optimistic Eschatology

This is a sermon manuscript written for Reformation OPC (AZ) to be preached on Sunday, May 30, 2021


Introduction

In this lesson I want to bind your conscience, not in an unbiblical way, but to bind it as it always should be bound: by what Scripture requires us to believe. Many people seem to think eschatology is an area of theology that is left entirely up to the individual. Believe whatever you like, because what the Bible says is so obscure as to be impossible for us to understand alike. You have your convictions, and I have mine, and that’s just the way it will have to be because we can’t expect any more unity than that.


Of course, orthodox Christians understand there are certain doctrinal minimums on which we all must agree. Jesus will return to the earth someday. He will raise the dead. There will be a day of judgment in which all men will answer to God. Those who trust in Christ will be saved and live forever in glory. The wicked will be cast into Hell to suffer eternal punishment. The Lord will judge the world with fire and a new heavens and earth will be established where God will dwell with his people forever. We might call these the eschatological minimums on which all Christians who are orthodox in their doctrine and faithful to Scripture agree.


Beyond these minimums, however, there seems to be almost no agreement. Will Jesus return prior to or after the thousand year reign? Will there be signs of his return? Will the thousand years actually be a thousand years, or is that merely a symbolic description of a long period? Will Jesus reign during the thousand years on earth or in heaven? To what extent will believers share in that thousand year reign? Will our participation be visible or invisible, physical or only spiritual? Will there be a Great Tribulation prior to that thousand years? Has such a Tribulation already taken place, or are we still waiting? Will the Church be on earth during the Tribulation? How many resurrections will there be? I would be happy to settle all of these questions for you. I believe all of them have answers in the Bible. But many people who agree the Bible gives clear answers would not agree with what I think the Scriptures clearly teach!


Herein lies the problem. We are not approaching Scripture neutrally. We cannot. There is no reason we should. We all have certain biases, certain presuppositions, that affect our reading and interpretation of God’s Word. For example, I believe the Bible is God’s Word, that it is inspired, infallible, and authoritative for faith and life. Those are presuppositions. I happen to think they are good presuppositions, valid conclusions with good evidence to support them. But I am not coming to the Bible as an unbiased and indifferent reader; neither are you. We have other presuppositions when we read eschatological texts. Besides the aforementioned eschatological minimums, many people also assume: the world is going to get worse and worse, the Church will have less and less influence, the Gospel will seem to lose its power to convert people, and finally things will get so bad that the Lord will either extract the Church in a sudden Rapture rescue mission or return in order to accomplish by fire what he could not accomplish by the Spirit’s Sword, i.e. subduing his enemies. This is what many people assume as they read Bible prophecy. This is the lens through which they read the Bible (and the news). And if you read prophetic texts with these assumptions, you will draw certain conclusions. That doesn’t mean these assumptions are wrong; it only means we need to be aware of what assumptions we have as we read Scripture and seek to be sure our assumptions are actually biblical, lest they cause us to misread what God has said.


In this lesson I have a small goal: I want to convince you that no matter your eschatological position, your perspective ought to be optimistic. This is not because I am, by nature, an optimist. I am not. But I do believe many Christians have a pessimistic (they might say realistic) bias when they read Bible prophecies, and I want to challenge and overthrow that view. To do that might require us to work through a dozen or more texts people think support a pessimistic eschatology, or I could set before you the more than a dozen texts that absolutely require us not to be pessimistic about the future of this world and the influence of the Gospel. But instead I am simply going to take you to one text, Isaiah 35, and try to show you why what is said in this passage (and so many others like it) actually requires us to be hopeful about the future, even if we don’t yet agree on everything that will happen in that future prior to Jesus’ return.


A Summary of Eschatological Perspectives

We’re using several big words--words some pastors say shouldn’t be used in the pulpit, but words that you will hear a lot at ROPC. I want to be sure you understand what these words mean as we begin.


Eschatology is the study of last things or the end. This includes things we mentioned before like the nature of the world before the Day of Judgment, the millennium, the return of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the eternal state (i.e. heaven and hell). We could say that eschatology concerns what the Bible tells us about the future, how this present world will come to an end and what will happen prior to its end until all the saints live in glory with Christ.


The millennium is the thousand years when Christian martyrs reign with Christ. Believers do not all agree on how many times or places the Bible refers to this thousand years, but it is only explicitly named as a thousand years in one passage, Revelation 20:4: And I saw thrones, and they sat on them, and judgment was committed to them. Then I saw the souls of those who had been beheaded for their witness to Jesus and for the word of God, who had not worshiped the beast or his image, and had not received his mark on their foreheads or on their hands. And they lived and reigned with Christ for a thousand years. That’s the only verse in the Bible that tells us specifically about the millennium. Every other verse that refers to the millennium is disputed by someone.


Christians have various views of this thousand years and when Jesus will return in relation to it, and this gives us more terminology you need to understand. Premillennialists believe Jesus will return before (pre-) the thousand years. Postmillennialists believe Jesus will return after (post-) the thousand years. Amillennialists are a kind of postmillennialist. They believe Jesus will return after the thousand years. But they are called amillennialists because they believe the thousand years is symbolic of the Church Age, not a literal thousand years, and not necessarily of period of great triumph for the Gospel among the nations, but simply the period during which Christ reigns invisibly over his Church from the time of his ascension until his return prior to Judgment Day.


Terms are supposed to be helpful in understanding key ideas, but that’s not always the case. For example, amillennialism suggests there will not (a-) be a thousand year reign, but that is not what amillennialists believe. Furthermore, most postmillennialists agree that the thousand years is symbolic of the Church Age and not literally one thousand years. The difference between the two groups is primarily over how much influence the Gospel will have during that period between the ascension and Jesus’ return, and there is not even perfect agreement among postmillennialists (or amillennialists) on that. Instead of being helpful, these terms sometimes cause us to talk past each other. (I’m still waiting for an amillennial candidate for licensure to come through the Credentials Committee who can accurately describe postmillennialism.) We make assumptions about other positions that are not always true. There are even optimistic amillennialists, which historically would simply be known as postmillennialists, but because of assumptions about postmillennialism, those with a more optimistic bent feel the need to create another category. There are even Christians who simply adopt what they think is a more spiritual (or necessary) eschatological agnosticism. They don’t know what the Bible says about the future beyond a few minimums and they don’t seem to care. They are pan-millennialists because they simply assume it will all pan out in the end! We can do better than this. We ought to.


An Overview of Isaiah 35

We don’t have time to fully unpack Isaiah 35 in this lesson, nor is that our purpose. But I want to quickly survey the chapter and give you a sense of it so that you can see how it (and many other texts like it) ought to inform our overall eschatological perspective.


The preceding chapter describes the day of Yahweh’s vengeance. Specifically the passage identifies Edom as the target of God’s wrath (34:5-6), but the context makes it plain this prophecy is about God’s greater judgment of the world (34:2). This is not necessarily the final day on which God will judge the world, though it anticipates that, but it is a description of God’s judgment of the enemies of his people so that his saints will be vindicated and the cause of truth and the heavenly kingdom would be established (34:8).

Come near, you nations, to hear; And heed, you people! Let the earth hear, and all that is in it, The world and all things that come forth from it. For the indignation of the Lord is against all nations, And His fury against all their armies; He has utterly destroyed them, He has given them over to the slaughter. Also their slain shall be thrown out; Their stench shall rise from their corpses, And the mountains shall be melted with their blood. All the host of heaven shall be dissolved, And the heavens shall be rolled up like a scroll; All their host shall fall down As the leaf falls from the vine, And as fruit falling from a fig tree. “For My sword shall be bathed in heaven; Indeed it shall come down on Edom, And on the people of My curse, for judgment. The sword of the Lord is filled with blood, It is made overflowing with fatness, With the blood of lambs and goats, With the fat of the kidneys of rams. For the LORD has a sacrifice in Bozrah, And a great slaughter in the land of Edom. The wild oxen shall come down with them, And the young bulls with the mighty bulls; Their land shall be soaked with blood, And their dust saturated with fatness.” For it is the day of the LORD’s vengeance, The year of recompense for the cause of Zion.

(Isaiah 34:1-8)

It is after this judgment that we see the blessing, fruitfulness, and glory described in chapter 35. The earth shall rejoice and blossom in the light of Yahweh’s glory (35:1-2). The blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will leap, the mute will sing, and the desert will be filled with streams (35:5-7). A highway of holiness will be established where no unclean or wicked person will be allowed to pass but where even a simple person (a fool) can travel safely without fear of beasts or bandits (35:8-9), and those whom God has redeemed will travel on that road all the way to Zion with songs of gladness and everlasting joy, and all their sorrow and sighing will be over (35:10).


Now when would this chapter be fulfilled? How you answer that question will depend on your eschatological presuppositions. If you are a premillennialist, you will read it one way; if you are a postmillennialist, you will read it another way; and if you are an amillennialist, you may read it in still another way. Conservative Christians say they believe in the clarity of Scripture, but when it comes to eschatology we seem to think that what the Bible says is so obscure that we will never be able to agree! Isaiah 35 isn’t going to settle anything in terms of the millennium, but it should have a major impact on our eschatological perspective.


This chapter is describing in vivid, poetic terms the blessing that the Messiah would bring to the world. We know this because of how Jesus describes his own ministry.

And when John had heard in prison about the works of Christ, he sent two of his disciples and said to Him, “Are You the Coming One, or do we look for another?” Jesus answered and said to them, “Go and tell John the things which you hear and see: The blind see and the lame walk; the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear; the dead are raised up and the poor have the gospel preached to them. And blessed is he who is not offended because of Me.” (Matt. 11:2-6)

Jesus alludes to Isaiah 35 (and other passages like it) in telling the messengers of John this is what Isaiah was talking about. The ministry of Christ was bringing the renewal and glory which our text describes in poetic terms. At the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus announced: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37-38). Where did the Scripture prophesy this? Here in Isaiah 35: For waters shall burst forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert (v.6).


What did Jesus accomplish by his life, death, and resurrection? What was the result of his ministry? The earth has been filled and is being renewed by the light of Yahweh’s glory (35:1-2). Those blinded by sin now see God in the person of Christ. The deaf hear the Gospel and believe. Those made lame by sin now leap with new strength and joy. Those whose voices were silenced now sing. The desert has been filled with streams as the Holy Spirit has been poured out upon the Church (35:5-7). A highway of holiness has been established, and the redeemed of God travel that road all the way to Zion with songs of gladness and everlasting joy (35:10). There are still many trials and sorrows which the Church must endure, but this is the spiritual reality actualized by the Gospel. This is life in the kingdom of God. This is the fruit of Christ’s work. We are not merely waiting for restoration and joy; we have it right now, and we have it because of the Lord.


Now in saying Isaiah 35 describes the blessings of Christ and the kingdom of God which began during the Lord’s earthly ministry does not mean that is the end of its fulfillment. Christ has begun to bring these blessings to the world, and they will continue to increase and abound until we finally reach the full consummation which Scripture promises in the eternal state. This is how John Calvin interpreted the passage, and we have good grounds for doing the same.

“The Lord began some kind of restoration when he brought his people out of Babylon; but that was only a slight foretaste, and, therefore, I have no hesitation in saying that this passage, as well as others of a similar kind, must refer to the kingdom of Christ; and in no other light could it be viewed, if we compare it to other prophecies. By ‘the kingdom of Christ,’ I mean not only that which is begun here, but that which shall be completed at the last day, which on that account is called ‘the day of renovation and restoration,’ (Acts 3:21;) because believers will never find perfect rest till that day arrive. And the reason why the prophets speak of the kingdom of Christ in such lofty terms is, that they look at that end when the true happiness of believers, shall be most fully restored.” --John Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah Vol. 3, s.v. 35:1

This is what we sometimes call the already, not yet aspect of eschatology. Already these blessings of redemption and renewal have come to the world, but not yet in the fullness we will one day see.


Applying an Isaiah 35 Paradigm to Eschatology

It does not matter what your eschatological position may be, Isaiah 35 is in your Bible, and it should make a (profound) difference in your eschatological perspective. I’m not concerned in this lesson what you believe about the thousand year reign or when Jesus will return in relation to it or what else we can expect to happen before and after that period. I want you to see that no matter what you think about those questions, Isaiah 35 (and many others) should change your perspective about where we are, where we’re headed, and what God is doing in the world right now.


If you assume the world is going to hell in a handbasket, then you will find many reasons on the news and social media to confirm your bias. Admittedly, the situation we find ourselves in is serious. We are not minimizing the hatred, hostility, violence, and embrace of totalitarian ideology that appears to be rising in the western world. Some people are watching the news and reading the tea leaves and think they are seeing the fulfillment of prophecy. Whatever is going on, we know it is ultimately under the supervision and sovereign providence of the Lord of heaven and earth.


But regardless of what any political party or government or tech platform may do, Isaiah 35 is still in your Bible, and it is still true. It might be that the earth is being removed, mountains are falling into the sea, the waters are roaring and troubled, the mountains are shaking and swelling (cf. Psa. 46:1-3), in other words, the peoples of the world are raging as the present age passes away and the strongholds of this present, evil world fall apart. But still it is true that there is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place of the tabernacle of the Most High. God is in the midst of her, she shall not be moved; God shall help her, just at the break of dawn (Psa. 46:4-5). The (wicked) world may be falling apart, but the Church is traveling the highway of holiness, and the kingdom of glory is not falling apart but falling into place. This is our confidence and peace.

“God not only begins, but conducts to the end, the work of our salvation, that his grace in us may not be useless and unprofitable. As he opens up the way, so he paves it, and removes obstacles of every description, and is himself the leader during the whole journey. In short, he continues his grace towards us in such a manner that he at length brings it to perfection. And this ought to be applied to the whole course of our life. Here we walk as on a road, moving forward to that blessed inheritance. Satan presents numerous obstructions, and dangers surround us on every side; but the Lord, who goes before and leads us by the hand, will not leave us in the midst of the journey, but at length will perfectly finish what he has begun in us by his Spirit…. Yet the godly often suffer heavy distresses, and are not exempt from grief. This is undoubtedly true, but they are not overwhelmed; for they look straight towards God, by whose power they become victorious, just as if a person, elevated on a lofty mountain, looking at the sun, and enjoying his brightness, beheld others in a low valley, surrounded by clouds and darkness, whom that brightness could not reach.” --John Calvin

Pastoral Application: Stop Being Puddleglum

I hope you know who Puddleglum is. If you don’t, be sure to pick up a copy of The Silver Chair this week. It’s Book Four in The Chronicles of Narnia. (If your set has The Silver Chair as Book Six, be sure to fix the order.) Puddleglum is a Marshwiggle. He lived all alone in a marsh. He had “a long thin face with rather sunken cheeks, a tightly shut mouth, a sharp nose, and no beard.” He wore “a high, pointed hat like a steeple, with an enormously wide flat brim.” His “hair, if it could be called hair, which hung over [his] large ears was greeny-grey, and each lock was flat rather than round, so that they were like tiny reeds.” His “expression was solemn, [his] complexion muddy, and you could see at once that [he] took a serious view of life.” You get a sense of his character when he greets Jill and Scrubb the morning after they arrive at his wigwam.

“Good morning, Guests…. Though when I say good I don’t mean it won’t probably turn to rain or it might be snow, or fog, or thunder. You didn’t get any sleep at all, I dare say.” 

“Yes we did, though,” said Jill. “We had a lovely night.”

“Ah,” said the Marsh-wiggle, shaking his head. “I see you’re making the best of a bad job. That’s right. You’ve been well brought up, you have. You’ve learned to put a good face on things.”

When Jill and Scrubb ask Puddleglum if he can help them find Prince Rilian, he replies:

“Well, I don’t know that you’d call it help…. I don’t know that anyone can exactly help. It stands to reason we’re not likely to get very far on a journey to the North, not at this time of the year, with the winter coming on soon and all. And an early winter too, by the look of things. But you mustn’t let that make you downhearted. Very likely, what with enemies, and mountains, and rivers to cross, and losing our way, and next to nothing to eat, and sore feet, we’ll hardly notice the weather. And if we don’t get far enough to do any good, we may get far enough not to get back in a hurry.”

It’s hard to know whether Puddleglum was evaluating the likely success of the children’s quest or summarizing many Christians’ perspective on gospel ministry in the present age. The sad thing is that, like Puddleglum, many believers seem to think this sort of realism is more spiritual than the cheerfulness and hopefulness which Isaiah 35 might otherwise impart.

“Don’t you lose heart…. I’m coming, sure and certain. I’m not going to lose an opportunity like this. It will do me good. They all say--I mean, the other wiggles all say--that I’m too flighty; don’t take life seriously enough. If they’ve said it once, they’ve said it a thousand times. ‘Puddleglum,’ they’ve said, ‘you’re altogether too full of bobance and bounce and high spirits. You’ve got to learn that life isn’t all fricasseed frogs and eel pie. You want something to sober you down a bit. We’re only saying it for your own good, Puddleglum.’ That’s what they say. Now a job like this--a journey up north just as winter’s beginning, looking for a Prince that probably isn’t there, by way of a ruined city that no one has ever seen--will be just the thing. If that doesn’t steady a chap, I don’t know what will.”

It’s not spiritual to be like Brother Puddleglum. Our perspective ought not to be determined by the dangers we perceive or the probabilities of failure but, rather, by the promises of God. These promises are not only of future glory, as great as that will be. They are promises about our present experience, the life we live in the world right now. Scriptures commands us to have a cheerful, hopeful, optimistic perspective on eschatology.

Strengthen the weak hands,

And make firm the feeble knees.

Say to those who are fearful-hearted,

“Be strong, do not fear!

Behold, your God will come with vengeance,

With the recompense of God;

He will come and save you.” (Isaiah 35:3-4)

“Those that by faith are made citizens of the gospel Zion may go on their way rejoicing (Acts viii. 39); they shall sing in the ways of the Lord, and be still praising him. They rejoice in Christ Jesus, and the sorrows and signs of their convictions are made to flee away by the power of divine consolations. Those that mourn are blessed, for they shall be comforted…. Our joyful hopes and prospects of eternal life should swallow up both all the sorrows and all the joys of this present time.” --Matthew Henry, Commentary, s.v. Isaiah 35:10

Conclusion

We may disagree on the nature, location, and duration of the millennium. We may disagree on what Christ will do before and after that thousand year period. We may disagree on the extent to which the Gospel will influence, transform, and finally overcome all the kingdoms of this world. But what we ought not to disagree on is that the Gospel is and will have that effect. Judgment has begun, and though the peoples of the earth rage, their mountain fortresses are collapsing. In the end only the mountain of God will remain. The Lord has brought life and light, healing and hope, joy and fruitfulness to this sin-cursed world, and though we still live as pilgrims, we are traveling the highway of holiness that leads all the way to Zion. We need not fear any lions we meet along the way. We will not miss a turn or fail to reach our destination.

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return,

And come to Zion with singing,

With everlasting joy on their heads.

They shall obtain joy and gladness,

And sorrow and sighing shall flee away.


--JME